Music on Radio 3

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Schoenberg, Webern, Berg - just `Three of a Kind', according to the BBC. Not so, says Bayan Northcott: they're as different as they are alike.

It is not that one questions the idea of "Sounding the Century". On the contrary, surveying the significant music of the past 100 years in the remaining months before the millennium would seem an entirely appropriate function for a public service network such as Radio 3 - especially if it can manage to interest new listeners in the process. But that is surely the trouble with the current Three of a Kind, comprising four public concerts and a Composers of the Week series devoted to the so-called Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. Granted, they all came out of the same fin de siecle background, held the same views on tradition and innovation, musical material, form and expression, and shared in the evolution of the 12-tone method. Whether such closeness makes for the most effective programming is another matter.

Wednesday evening's relay from the Royal Festival Hall of the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis included not onlyWebern's Passacaglia Op 1 and Schoenberg's rarely heard Four Orchestral Songs Op 22, but Berg's Altenberg Lieder and Three Orchestral Pieces Op 6, plus Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces Op 16 and Variations for Orchestra Op 31. One could see the paper logic: two orchestral sets, two song sets, two variation- based pieces. Nor are any of these scores less than masterly in their densely detailed and intensely expressive unfolding. But cramming them into a single, unrelieved evening was bound to confront performers and listeners alike with the most daunting challenge.

That normally genial broadcaster Christopher Cook sounded, at times, equally uncomfortable in presenting Composers of the Week. Monday's instalment began with a crackly tape of the aged Schoenberg reaffirming the artistic primary of the imagination, followed by a recording of his Accompaniment to a Film Scene Op 34. In this instance, the film itself was wholly imaginary, but it served to broach the promising topic of Schoenberg's life-long interest in cinema and the influence of such techniques as cross-cutting and montage on his own music, which Cook attempted further to illustrate by including Schoenberg's earlier symbolic music-drama Die Gluckliche Hand.

But, of course, the programme also had to take some account of the rest of the Second Viennese School and, although Cook mentioned in passing the interlude in Lulu that Berg composed to accompany a brief silent film in the opera's second act, he actually chose, or was obliged to insert, none too convincingly, a recording of Berg's Piano Sonata Op 1, which had nothing to do with cinema.

Perhaps the point was to remind us that, although they shared the same aesthetic, the three composers were very different personalities. But, in that case, why not exploit the differences by programming each in his own context? For beginners, Schoenberg is probably best approached through the late Wagner and Brahms and the more proto-Expressionist pages of Mahler and Strauss from which he evolved. But he was also as interested in Debussy as Ravel was in him, suggesting another sequence of programmes. And, of course, there is always the Schoenberg-Stravinsky antithesis - a cross- cutting of whom might yield some unexpected parallels in the handling of classical forms and approach to religious texts. At least such juxtapositions, or even naughtier ones, might prompt some re-examination of the received view of the history of 20th-century music, which too many programmes in "Sounding the Century" have merely seemed to confirm.

Conducting Schoenberg's fearsome Moses und Aron at Covent Garden in the 1960s was one of the more heroic deeds of the late Sir Georg Solti, who came in for an evening-length Radio 3 celebration of recordings, interviews and discussions on Monday. Much was made of his professionalism and drive, not to mention his innumerable Grammy Awards, and the evening's presenter, Humphrey Carpenter, duly dubbed him "one of the greatest conductors in musical history". Yet comparisons with other conductors were rather conspicuously avoided, and one was left to wonder whether, even at his finest in Mozart, Mahler or Strauss, Solti quite commanded that seeming ability to focus a whole view of music, its history, values, philosophy, upon the performing moment, which, in such utterly different ways, marked a Toscanini, a Furtwangler or even a Beecham.

`Composers of the Week': last programme at 12 noon today, whole series repeated Mon-Fri next week at 11.30pm